Most people think of fancy digital SLRs when they see a crisp photograph, but Jess Williamson gives us a sobering look at life through an analog lens. Initially inspired by her own mother’s photos and later in a college course, Williamson has honed her skills and released them out into the public over the last few years. Portable spoke to Williamson about her snapshots of life functioning as quintessential representations of the millennial generation, or at least a large part of it. She has the ability to craft a narrative through glimpses of intimate and exploratory moments.
Aside having her photos shown in editorials and Vice articles, Williamson’s series “You Can Have Heaven On Earth” not only captures the interference of technology in nature, but coincides with her latest musical project as well. Although she is focusing primarily on music these days, photography remains a passion for the Austin based artist.
Portable: What initially drew you to photography?’
Jess Williamson: My mom had a film camera when I was growing up, and I was amazed by the photos she would take. Growing up in Texas, we went to Mexico at least once or twice a year. I have this memory of a photo she took of this child playing in a tiger shaped fountain, probably in Cabo san Lucas. This picture exists in my mind like a dream, and it may sound trite but it’s a really significant image for me because it embodies the fascination I had growing up with the mystique surrounding the different photographic techniques one can employ. She had a slow shutter speed going and the kid was laughing and sort of running through the water so it created this blurry effect. It sounds so photo 101 but as a ten year old I was mesmerized by her artistry. When I went to college I enrolled in an introductory photography class just because I always thought photos were cool, and it turned out that I was good at it too. I credit my quick learning to growing up with my mom’s artful snap shots from our adventures together. That photo class was the first time I ever felt like I was good at art. I’d always admired art, but it seemed like something beyond my scope of options. So yeah, to answer your question, at 18 I took this photo class in college and got so stoked learning all the tricks and just kept at it from there. I ended up majoring in Documentary Photography.
P: I noticed a self-portrait where you used an analog camera. Do you favor film over digital equipment?
Jess Williamson: I prefer film. It is helpful not to know exactly what you are getting. I can be a perfectionist, and when you see the photo instantly on the back of your camera it’s easy to linger on the details and lose the magic.
P: What or who influences your work?
Jess Williamson: The biggest influence is conversations, and after that is experience. For a while I was very inspired by this idea of shared transcendent moments with others. I had spent a couple years having these very spiritual experiences alone, typically in natural settings. I was younger and traveling on my own for the first time, living abroad and attending a University in Barcelona. I spent a lot of time alone, this was Fall 2007, and felt for the first time, in touch with something bigger than me and sacred and true. I noticed that this kind of headspace seemed more difficult to access if I was with friends. I became very intrigued by the ins and outs of having this kind of larger than life experiences alongside another person. It has happened though, I can think of at least two instances now where I felt so connected to who I was with, and so silent, and so understood and elevated and also so unimportant in the face of what we were witnessing together. And this really goes beyond anything sexual or worldly or social. I don’t know the words for it because I guess there aren’t words to describe this kind of thing. It’s something I’ve tried to represent primarily in song, specifically one song called “You Can Have Heaven on Earth”, which will be on my new album.
P: Are there differences between shooting in New York vs. Texas?
Jess Williamson: Yes there are. In Austin, I have a lot of resources that make shooting much easier. For example, I have a car, which makes it easier to carry equipment around. Also, I know this town really well. It helps.
P: You seem to catch people experiencing intimate reflective moments, do you seek that out?
Jess Williamson: Yes, and thank you for noticing.
P: What was the inspiration behind your solo show “You Can Have Heaven on Earth”?
Jess Williamson: That series is a result of my thinking about what it is within each of us that block us from feeling free and comfortable with other people, our surroundings, the natural world, ourselves. The images show blockades between the human figure and the natural world. They show pollution, they show this constant striving of humanity to lasso and tame the natural world and bend it to our purposes, serving convenience and ease. Or, this proliferating iPhone habit of taking photos of beautiful things so you can Instagram it or whatever. And look, I’m not saying I am not as guilty of this as the next person, but in my guilt I see this kind of living as a symptom of a more deeply rooted, overarching fear. And if there is one thing I learned in grad school, it’s that photography is ultimately about death.
P: Do your photography and music overlap one another? Do they influence one another?
Jess Williamson: Yes. “You Can Have Heaven on Earth” is a great example of this. The phrase has multiple meanings in my work. The song discusses shared transcendent experiences with others with a kind of reverence, and the body of photographic work deals with the difficulty of attaining such a connection. The idea being that we can all achieve a kind of Heaven on Earth, but it is not easily accessed.
P: Even though you are focusing on music now, does photography still factor into your daily life?
Jess Williamson: It does. As far as daily life, to get super basic about it, I am actually really into Instagram. It’s inspiring to have this photographic diary that you update in real time. This is so future and I am totally and embarrassingly into it. I have friends all over the world, and Instagram is a way to stay in touch and keep up with them. For example, my friend Tomo in Japan recently acquired Stag beetles as pets, and I would have never known if it weren’t for Instagram.
P: What are you working on now?
Jess Williamson: Right now I am focused on finishing my new record. It is called Native State, and I am nearly done tracking. Then it’s on to mixing and shopping it around to labels. I am an official SXSW artist this year, so I’m practicing for my showcase. It’s cool, I’m playing at the Parish for the first time, which is kind of a dream venue for me. I am looking forward to it because they say it’s the best sound in town. Other than that, I am enjoying a quiet time in Austin.